LONDON -- Renan Barao might have twice as many wins as his opponent Michael McDonald (and a win streak of 19 fights), but the battle for the bantamweight title has all the makings of an epic. While McDonald mesmerized the media with his talk of mental fortitude, faith in God and technical dedication, the interim champ was a little more grounded in his approach.
“I train hard. Each fight is the most important fight and I am here to do my best,” Barao said during the final news conference to promote Saturday’s UFC on Fuel 7 card at Wembley Arena. “I don’t feel that I have an advantage having been in a five-round fight before; I’m just focused on doing my job and defending my title.
And though McDonald dismissed the relevance of competing for the interim title -- Dominick Cruz, who is still recovering from knee surgery, possesses the bantamweight title -- Barao was determined to defend his belt.
“He [McDonald] has his own [thoughts of the significance of their bout]," Barao said. “He can think what he likes. I’m happy to be the champion and I am glad to be here and to do my job.”
Training out of Nova Uniao Team alongside Jose Aldo, many have made connections between the two fighters as well as their undefeated runs in the UFC. However, Barao is keen to stress that he is part of an evolving and growing gym of fighters and that he is a champion in his own right.
“Aldo is not the only guy I work with,” Barao said. “The whole team and all my coaches have helped me prepare for McDonald. We have a strong style at Nova Uniao. We are all trying to develop our own way of fighting, to stay relaxed in the cage and do our best.”
Both McDonald and Barao have stated the necessity to remain calm and in control once inside the Octagon, and with both packing big power, great submission skills and an equal number of UFC wins, the fight for the title promises to be action-packed.
McDonald: ‘It’s mind over matter’
Speaking like a man far more mature than his 22 years suggest, McDonald discussed the importance of studying his opponent and considering his strategy.
“I don’t care about the belt. This is like any other fight for me,” McDonald said. “I’ve been here [in the cage] 16 times before and I have to treat this fight like any other. I’ve been looking at Barao’s skill set and working out what I would do against him and the strategies I can employ. I’m not thinking about the belt or what it would mean to be the youngest UFC champ. If I do look at it, the time [to do so] is after.”
McDonald’s relaxed demeanor during the news conference echoed his thoughts on the fight and his overall approach to MMA.
“Barao is a great fighter. He is probably a better athlete than a martial artist. We have different weapons. My weapons are strong. I have my mind and the understanding of my body.
“Fighting is simple. It’s about not getting hit and hitting your opponent hard. My strength is built from the arduous repetitions and the dedication I have given to the details, the efficiency of fighting. It is those small details that will help me. On Saturday the battle will be between his athleticism and my technicality.”
Swanson, Poirier happy to be where they are
With the recent introduction of official UFC rankings, many fighters can now see where they stand within their respective divisions -- at least, in the eyes of the voting media. For Cub Swanson, ranked No. 6 at featherweight, and Dustin Poirier, who is No. 7, it remains a question, more important, of earning the wins and waiting for the chance to fight for the title.
“I think the rankings are pretty accurate,” Poirier said. “I was higher before my loss to the Korean Zombie [Chan Sung Jung], but seventh is reasonable. Obviously that’ll change after the weekend.”
Though Swanson has a previous loss to Jose Aldo, his current win streak could put him in contention soon.
“I got a clean slate when I joined the UFC,” Swanson said. “I’m fighting smarter and tougher now.
“I am just really enjoying fighting right now. My goal is to be the best I can be. I want to end my career knowing that I was the best martial artist I could be. I fight for the UFC and that is a dream for most athletes.”
Diabate considers retirement?
Light heavyweight veteran Cyril Diabate was considering retiring from combat sports until his recent win streak.
“I’ve been fighting for 22 years; I won’t lie, I had been thinking about retirement and motivation was definitely becoming a factor,” Diabate said. “It’s been a battle, but right now it’s not an issue."
“I’m used to this,” Diabate said. “I’m expecting to get booed when I walk to the Octagon. There’s a long rivalry between France and England but I am looking for the win. Jimi is powerful but I am technical. I know that whatever happens, it will be exciting.”
Riddle will refuse to fight if Goddard is officiating
Aside from all the questions about Brit bashing, being spat on in Manchester and whether he needs extra security in the United Kingdom, Matt Riddle voiced his serious concerns about referee Marc Goddard.
Goddard, a former fighter himself and one of the most respected refs in Britain, came under heavy fire from the welterweight during the news conference.
“I don’t feel safe having him [Goddard] in the cage with me. I don’t think he is educated enough to be refereeing in the UFC,” Riddle said.
Not safe? Uneducated?
“I’ve seen him ref tons of fights and guys will be working and he’ll just stand them up from side-control or mid-ground-and-pound,” Riddle explained. “It’s MMA, you know? I mean, I like stand-ups if there’s no action. It changes the game and that’s great.
“Goddard just seems to play to the crowd. He stood me up against Osipczak after a few seconds but when the tables were turned and Osipczak was on top he just let it go. He seems to be biased toward the UK fighters and he allows the crowd to sway his judgement and, to me, that seems like he’s looking for an ego boost -- and it is dangerous. Standing a guy up after he’s scored a takedown and he is a dominant position is just wrong. It might be the fighter’s last effort and the ref knows -- he is looking right at you.“
Riddle stated that he would actually refuse to fight if Goddard was appointed to ref his bout against Che Mills.
“It is my legal right as a fighter to do that. The guy is either uneducated as a ref or he is disrespecting the rules of the sport.”
Dana holds court in London
UFC president Dana White was greeted with a plethora of questions upon taking to the podium -- not least the state of the bantamweight title and Dominick Cruz’s injuries.
“Cruz has had the worst luck,” White said. “He is set to come back and all I can say is that I hope he comes back soon. Another injury would mean that he’s been out for nearly three years. If he got another serious injury you’d have to think that he should retire.
“When we have the interim titles, we all want that guy to face the champ. In MMA you have to beat the guy who beat the guy to be the champ. I’d hate to have to strip Dominick of the title. I’d hate to say that and right now we’re just hoping for him to come back and face whoever has the interim title.”
On another championship belt-related note -- text messages don’t get you title fights.
“Listen, text messages don’t get you fights,” White said after numerous questions were fielded by Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier. Both men had been asked about how much they were doing to make themselves heard in the title mix, but for White it still comes down to wins.
“Anthony Pettis put in a big performance against [Donald] 'Cowboy' Cerrone and that earned him the shot.”
With the UFC hosting an event in the UK so early in the year, and with a title bout heading up the card, thoughts were already turning to the implications that this might have for White’s plans in Britain.
“This card is stacked,” the UFC president said. “We could have had all the guys fighting up here for the news conference today. There are so many great fights on the card and so many of them are all close to earning a shot at the belt.
“We never gave up on the UK. Believe me, we’re going to get it done.”